Nivedita from a Scottish point of view [2017]

For the special January 2017 Nivedita Issue of Prabuddha Bharata. The full issue can be downloaded from:

Finding Nivedita from a Scottish point of view

Murdo Macdonald

On Friday 27 May 2011 in Dungannon in County Tyrone an event was held to mark the centenary of the death of Margaret Noble (1867-1911) better known to us as Sister Nivedita. A public ceremony to rededicate a plaque in her honour was complemented by a conference on her life and work held in the Council Chamber. Thanks to the invitation of another remarkable woman from Dungannon, namely Jean McGuinness, I was fortunate enough to be one of the speakers. McGuinness has campaigned tirelessly for the recognition of Margaret Noble in the country of her birth and her play about Sister Nivedita, Awakening a Nation, was the culmination of those centenary celebrations. She had asked me if I would speak about Nivedita’s deep concern for the visual arts in the context not only of India but in relation to Celtic Revival of the time. I was only too pleased to do so because much of my own work is concerned with cultural revival, and such issues were at the very heart of Nivedita’s work; indeed her cultural understanding and spiritual dedication were indissoluble.

My own awareness of Nivedita came through the work of her friend Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), a thinker to whose example I owe a great deal. He was a pioneer of human ecology and he saw cultural revival as a fundamental part of any modern society, whether considered from a local, national or international point of view. A biologist by training, he was profoundly interested in the notion of evolution as it applied to civilizations. For Geddes, crucial to any successful future was an appreciation of the past; it was only through such appreciation that those acting in the present could act truly on behalf of future generations. That appreciation depended on an understanding of how people live and where they live, and how they explore the possibilities of that place as part of the wider globe. The beginning of such appreciation was in what Geddes’ called ‘regional survey.’ Such thinking was immediately attractive to Nivedita. In her book The Web of Indian Life she echoes Geddes when she writes: ‘The foundation stone of our knowledge of a people must be an understanding of their region. For social structure depends primarily on labour, and labour is necessarily determined by place. Thus we reach the secret of thought and ideals.’ In her epigraph to the same book she writes of Professor Patrick Geddes teaching her to understand a little of Europe and by doing so providing ‘a method by which to read my Indian experiences.’

Those words were published in 1904, and they show Nivedita’s deep personal appreciation of Geddes. How had he made such an impression on her? The answer lies in Paris in 1900. Initial contact between Geddes and Nivedita had been made earlier that year in New York where Nivedita had been teaching with Vivekananda. In a memoir of Nivedita printed in The Sociological Review in 1913, Geddes recalled their first meeting and how it ‘continued into intimacy and collaboration during the following summer, at the meeting of the International Association which became the Summer School of the Paris Exhibition …’
Geddes had a high regard for the social value of major international exhibitions. Such events could be the starting point for creative thought about precisely the issues of locality and internationalism that were fundamental to his ideas of regional survey. He regarded universal exhibitions as the ‘primordial liquid’ that gave birth to museums, and for Geddes a ‘museum’ was just that, a place where the muses were active. As early as 1887 he had published an extended critique of industrial exhibitions in which he exhorted the organisers of such events to ‘take real and detailed heed of the claims of Art, Science, and Political Economy.’ The Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 met Geddes’ prescription to a significant degree. Seven years earlier at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda had presented Hinduism to the world at large as a major religion, emphasising its antiquity. And just as Vivekananda had articulated the case for Hindu revival Geddes had articulated the case for Celtic revival during the same period. In Paris Vivekananda lectured on Indian art, underlining the independent value of the early Buddhist art of India: such thinking was to be fundamental to Nivedita’s contribution.

In his autobiography, My Window on the Street of the World, Geddes’ friend and colleague the economist James Mavor took the trouble to note the presence in Geddes’ circle in Paris of both Vivekananda and Nivedita. Also in Paris was the biologist and physicist Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937). Like Geddes, Bose was both a pioneering scientist and an impressive interdisciplinary thinker. Sister Nivedita numbered Bose’s wife among her closest friends and twenty years later Geddes would be Bose’s biographer. That biography is a remarkable book. Geddes emphasises not just Bose’s eminence as a scientist but the spiritual importance of Bose’s geographical and cultural quest to understand India. Geddes also gives us further insight into Nivedita by noting the importance of her friendship to Bose, not just in India, but in London where in times of difficulty Bose and his wife stayed with Nivedita’s family. There was thus extended international social connection between Nivedita and Bose as well as intellectual friendship based on shared cultural interest.

A key theme in Geddes’ biography of Bose is the notion of cultural pilgrimage as a method of understanding. He notes the importance of such activity to the Bose family not least in relation to the copying the Buddhist art of Ajanta, a project of which Nivedita was a key proponent. But Geddes also uses such Indian cultural pilgrimage to illuminate the importance of cognate activity for the Europe of 1920, so recently disrupted by war. Geddes writes:

‘The reunion of Europe, then, can most strongly, even if slowly, be made through the education of travel. Not merely in the recent tourist spirit, at least in the cruder forms; but in that combining of the best of modern cultural travel with something of the old spirit of pilgrimage which that helps effectively to renew.’

And he continues by reflecting on the
‘… ever increasing appreciation of … regional and civic interests, the natural, the spiritual, and the temporal together, and in aspects historic, actual and incipient. Does this seem ‘Utopian’? It is after all but what the tourist and the wandering nature-lover, the art-student, and the historian have long been doing, and what the regional agriculturalist and the town planner are now in their turn doing. Today it lies with re-education, with reconstruction, and with re-religion as well, to organise these contacts more fully.’

Those passages give insight into Nivedita’s comment made sixteen years earlier, that Geddes, by teaching her ‘to understand a little of Europe’ had provided her with a method to read her Indian experiences.

The key tool for that reading was what Geddes called ‘the valley section.’ Directly concerned with interpreting the geography and ecology of place, the valley section is essentially the course of a river from hill to sea, with all the different possibilities of land-use and settlement along its course. But it was equally a place of myth and pilgrimage for if one considers the valley section even in its most minimal form the aspects of land to which Geddes draws our attention are as significant spiritually and mythologically as they are economically and ecologically. The hilltop, the forest, the mine, the field, the city, the sea; and of course the implied river at the heart of the valley. Geddes’ biographer Philip Boardman notes that the Ganges reminded Geddes of the river that helped to define his childhood in Scotland, the Tay. Geddes wrote of that river that it will ‘always be for me my main impulse of the life-stream and of the cosmos.’ Boardman continues by noting that this leads in turn to Geddes’ earliest experience of sunsets reflected in the river and his ‘first – and still brightest – vision of – what I took to be – God.’ And that cosmically inspiring life-stream was at the same time for Geddes the heart of the real valley that inspired his ecology: ‘it must have been in the climbings and the ramblings over this fine valley landscape … that I got the feeling of the valley section which has been a main vision of geography in later years.’

The usefulness of the valley section as a method of reading a landscape is clear from the ease with which Geddes feels able to compare the Tay and the Ganges. Although the Tay is a significant river flowing from the Scottish Highlands to the North Sea, in world geographical terms it is tiny compared to the Ganges flowing from it source in the Himalayas to its delta in Bengal. And yet Geddes’ valley section, as an analysis of any river from source to sea, works as a method to understand both.

One would expect the salient elements of the physical geography of the planet to correspond with equally salient elements of the ecology of the human mind and in Geddes we have a consciousness of both the physical and the psychological aspects of landscape. And within that psychological aspect for Geddes is a consciousness of both the everyday and the legendary, and more, of the importance of the legendary for the everyday and vice versa. On the one hand Geddes respected the cultural integrity of myth systems, on the other hand he recognised their links and similarities across cultures. Not only that but their usefulness as ways of thinking, ways of coding ideas, sometimes matching one another, sometimes complementing one another. At the watershed of the valley we may find, perhaps, Parnassus or the Hill of Tara or Schiehallion or Mount Meru or Kailas or Fuji. Like Nivedita Geddes recognised mythological ideas as a language for use. He had an immediate understanding of what his younger contemporary C. G. Jung (1875-1961) called the archetypal. It is interesting to note that all three of these spiritually thoughtful Europeans shared a Calvinist background, Jung in Switzerland, Geddes in the Free Church of Scotland, and Nivedita in her Congregationalist church in Ireland. Churches which adhered to that particular form of Christianity in the nineteenth century seemed to facilitate theological, ecumenical and comparative religious debate. Both William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), whose work influenced Freud, and Smith’s friend, James Frazer (1854-1941) of Golden Bough fame, had Scottish Calvinist backgrounds, as did one of the greatest of all creative mythologists, the novelist and poet George MacDonald (1824-1905). Precisely why Calvinism was so generative of explorers of comparative religion is beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that within the non-hierarchical structure of Calvinist churches is the implication that all views are worthy of consideration. That attitude that different types or aspects of thinking have equal value also helps one to understand the equality of value that thinkers like Nivedita and Geddes ascribed to both arts and sciences.

Over and above the intellectual context of their Calvinist backgrounds, Nivedita and Geddes shared a keen awareness of the indigenous cultures of their own countries and the oppression – usually in the name of ‘progress’ – that such Gaelic culture had suffered. That had been evident as governmental policy since about 1600, but had been most vigorously pursued in the years since the Jacobite uprising of 1745-6. Geddes’ father was a native Scottish Gaelic speaker and Nivedita was herself an Irish Gaelic speaker. Such intimate contact with the Gàidhealtachd on the part of both these thinkers would have been a real point of contact between them. At the same time the awareness of systematic attempts to destroy local and national cultures gave both Nivedita and Geddes an intimate understanding of the issues that advocates of Indian cultural revival had to face.

After Vivekanada’s death in 1902, Nivedita became the champion of his view on the importance of Indian art, strongly supporting the efforts of E. B. Havell in particular. In 1908 a paper by Havell which helped to bring the Bengal school to international prominence was published in a key British journal The Studio. The same year saw the publication of Havell’s book, Indian Sculpture and Painting. Tapati Guha-Thakurta has commented that the assessment of this book by Nivedita in 1909 was ‘certainly as important for Indian readers as the book itself.’

Nivedita would only live two more years but something of her significance in that period is indicated by Ananda Coomaraswamy when he remarks:

‘I should like to see deputations of Ceylonese young men sent to Europe, to Denmark, France, Hungary, Finland, Ireland, and also to America and Japan to study what is being done by leaders of education here, see what experiments are being made, and learn what education really means. I should like them also to study very seriously Indian history and culture for two years. Above all I should like them to come under the personal influence of men like Professor Geddes and women like Sister Nivedita. They would then be qualified by knowledge and responsibility, as they should be even now by inheritance, to shape and create.’

This comment is the more poignant because it would not be published until after Nivedita’s death. One can also note that Coomaraswamy takes Patrick Geddes for granted as a defender of Indian cultural values, even though his essay was written three years before Geddes went to India. After Nivedita’s death in 1911, Coomaraswamy was to perform a key role in taking her work forward, by stepping in to finish her book Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. That book has a double importance for it reiterated to the West in a highly readable form some of the key passages of Indian legend, and at the same time, through its careful illustration under the direction of Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), acted as an introduction to the new Bengal school of painting. In his introduction Coomaraswamy comments on the practical international importance of understanding myth: ‘The stories related here … include very much of which a knowledge is absolutely essential for every foreigner who proposes in any way to co-operate with the Indian people for the attainment of their desired ends – nowhere more clearly formulated than in mythology and art.’

Coomaraswamy also indicates the high regard for Nivedita in the West:

‘Sister Nivedita, to whom the present work was first entrusted, needs no introduction to Western or to Indian readers. A most sincere disciple of Swami Vivekanada, who was himself a follower of the great Ramakrishna, she brought to the study of Indian life and literature a sound knowledge of Western educational and social science, and an unsurpassed enthusiasm of the devotion to the peoples and the ideals of her adopted country. Her chief works are The Web of Indian Life, almost the only fair account of Hindu society written in English, and Kali the Mother, where also for the first time the profound tenderness and terror of the Indian mother-cult are presented to Western readers in such a manner as to reveal its true religious and social significance. Through these books Nivedita became not merely an interpreter of India to Europe, but even more, the inspiration of a new race of Indian students, no longer anxious to be Anglicised, but convinced that all real progress, as distinct from mere political controversy, must be based on national ideals, upon intentions already clearly expressed in religion and art.’

He concludes by noting: ‘The Indian myths here retold include almost all those which are commonly illustrated in Indian sculpture and painting. Finally, they include much that must very soon be recognized as belonging not only to India, but to the whole world; I feel that this is above all true of the Ramayana, which is surely the best tale of chivalry and truth and the love of creatures that was ever written.’

That simply underlines Nivedita’s importance as a teacher of Indian culture to the West. It also reminds us that through Coomaraswamy we find a direct link from Nivedita to later thinkers such as Joseph Campbell.

In his essay ‘Young India’ collected in his book The Dance of Shiva published in 1918 Coomaraswamy writes: ‘Sometimes the genuine English [sic] educationalist, seeking to restore the Indian classics or vernaculars to their real place in Indian curricula, is met by the determined opposition of the Nationalists: and it is not without reason that Professor Patrick Geddes … has remarked that it would be a mistake to allow the Europeanised Indian graduates to have their way with Indian education: “that would be continuing our mistake,” as he says, “not correcting it.” ’ That addresses precisely the issue that Nivedita had addressed. Not nationalism in any simple yea or nay sense, but rather tensions within nationalism. Coomaraswamy is addressing what Frantz Fanon called ‘inferiorism’ that is to say the adoption by the intellectual class of a colonised nation (whether that class is politically nationalist or otherwise) of the values of the coloniser at the expense of their own. As a Scot of Highland background operating within a British Imperial culture (whether in Scotland or in India) Geddes was fully aware of this issue. In Scotland it has attracted discussion in more recent times in the works of George Davie and others. For example James Kelman poses a question fundamental to challenging such inferiorism: ‘When does “teaching” become colonisation?’ One can shed further light on this through the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s idea of the ‘cultural bomb’ an intellectual weapon deployed routinely in the interests of economic greed masquerading as ‘empire.’

‘The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is most removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces that would stop their own springs of life. It even plants doubts about the moral rightness of struggle. Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote ridiculous dreams.’

Ngugi is writing in a Kenyan context but what he says is resonant with Nivedita’s understanding of the need for cultural revival whether Indian or Celtic. Indeed one might regard her as one of the most resolute of all those who confronted the culturally destructive attitudes to which Ngugi refers.

I began this paper by drawing attention to the contribution that Patrick Geddes made to Nivedita’s thinking. By now it will be clear that her influence on him was equally profound. Attending that celebration of her life in Dungannon in 2011 made me aware of how vital (in the fullest sense of that word) her work in the early years of the twentieth century had been. It remains vital today.


Beveridge, Craig and Ronald Turnbull. The Eclipse of Scottish Culture. Polygon: Edinburgh, 1989.
Boardman, Philip. The Worlds of Patrick Geddes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Brockington, J. L. The Sacred Thread: A Short History of Hinduism. New Dehli: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Dance of Shiva. New York: Sunwise Turn, 1918.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Art and Swadeshi. New Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1994.
Davie, George. The Scottish Enlightenment and other essays. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990.
Geddes, Patrick. Industrial Exhibitions and Modern Progress. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1887.
Geddes, Patrick. An Indian Pioneer of Science: The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c. 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Havell, E. B. ‘The New Indian School of Painting’ The Studio vol. 44 (1908): 107-117.
Mavor, James. My Window on the Street of the World, London and Toronto: Dent, 1923.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind. London: James Currey, 1986.
Nivedita, Sister. The Web of Indian Life. London: William Heinemann, 1904.
Nivedita, Sister and Andanda K. Coomaraswamy. Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. London: George Harrap, 1913.
Ponte Alessandra. ‘Building the Stair Spiral of Evolution: The Index Museum of Patrick Geddes’ Assemblage, 10 (1989): 47-69.
Ratcliffe, S. K. Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita). London: Sherratt and Hughes, 1913.

Further Reading:

Macdonald, Murdo, ‘Education, Visual Art and Cultural Revival: Tagore, Geddes, Nivedita, and Coomaraswamy.’ Gitanjali and Beyond. In press.

Macdonald, Murdo, ‘Celticism and Internationalism in the Circle of Patrick Geddes.’ Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2005): 70-83.

Macdonald, Murdo, ‘Patrick Geddes and Cultural Renewal through Visual Art: Scotland-India-Japan,’ in Patrick Geddes: By Leaves We Live, edited by Kiyoshi Okutsu, Alan Johnston, Murdo Macdonald and Noboru Sadakata, 46-71. Edinburgh and Yamaguchi: Edinburgh College of Art and Yamaguchi Institute for Contemporary Art, 2005.

Macdonald, Murdo, Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).